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THE BRIEFING FOR FEB. 24-MAR. 10, 2011
By Joe Brancatelli

· No Surcharges Yet, But Another $20 Fare Bump
· Virgin America Finally Makes It to Chicago/O'Hare
· AirTran Adds More Routes From Branson, Missouri
· That's One Big Emerging Hotel Market in India
· Customs and Immigration Pre-Clearance in Dublin
· Four Seasons Reopens London Hotel in Park Lane
· America's Fastest-Growing Airport? Grand Rapids


No Fuel Surcharges Yet, But Another $20 Fare Bump Today
The price of crude oil on New York markets closed below $98 a barrel today (February 24) after briefly spiking as high as $103. The continued upward spiral--and, by extension the rising price of jet fuel--means that airfares will rise at least as fast. Major U.S. carriers raised fares another $20 roundtrip today, which represents the fifth increase since the beginning of the year, says Rick Seaney of FareCompare.com. That means fares have already increased more frequently in 2011 than in all of 2010 or 2009, he adds, and it brings us back to the bad old days of 2007 (when there were 17 fare jumps) and 2008 (15 hikes). That is when oil reached its historic high of $147 a barrel. As I explained in a column last week, the oily reality is that spiking jet-fuel prices mean domestic fuel surcharges are nearly inevitable, too. In fact, United and Continental have twice tried to increase prices this year with surcharges. They only backed off when competitors chose general price increases instead. Is there any good news? The loon Gaddafi might be gone more quickly (and with less violence) than most people think. Secondly, FareCompare.com says average fares are still lower than their oil-driven, pre-financial-collapse highs of 2008. In the top 50 markets, FareCompare says prices this month (including taxes and fees) are $318 compared to $319 in July, 2008.

Virgin America Will (Finally) Fly to Chicago
Virgin America originally announced plans to fly to Chicago/O'Hare back in 2008. But then it sheepishly changed its corporate mind when it realized that it hadn't remembered to acquire gate space before making its announcement. Now, however, Virgin apparently has all of its ducks (and gates) in order and it has once again announced plans to fly to O'Hare. Beginning on May 25, Virgin America will fly twice a day on the Los Angeles-O'Hare route and three times daily on the San Francisco-O'Hare run. AirTran Airways, which is being acquired by Southwest Airlines, says it will add more flights at Springfield-Branson Airport in Missouri beginning on May 26. There will be four weekly flights to Houston/Hobby, four weekly flights to Chicago/Midway and Saturday-only service to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. You'll note that all of those cities are big Southwest destinations.

Now That's One Big New Emerging Hotel Market
Hilton Garden Inn will concentrate most of its future growth in international markets, explains Adrian Kurre, the brand's leader, because he wants to go where the customers are. India, for example, has more prospective business-class hotel customers than the United States has people, he says. But "there are more hotels rooms in Orlando than there are in the entire country of India. I'm not kidding." Four Seasons has reopened its original London hotel, on Park Lane, after more than two years of renovation. The property, originally called the Inn on the Park, now has 192 rooms, including 45 suites. A $25 million renovation has turned an old seven-story office building in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, into the 93-room Hotel Indigo. The building was called the Hotel King before the Depression, so it does have a lodging pedigree. The 189-room Park Plaza Hotel at Oakland Airport has converted to the Red Lion brand.

Customs Pre-Clearance Up and Running in Dublin's Terminal 2
Now that Aer Lingus has moved its flights to the United States into Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport, all U.S. travelers leaving Ireland can use customs and immigration pre-clearance. That includes flyers on Delta, Continental, US Airways and, when it resumes seasonal service, American Airlines. The purpose-built facility inside of Terminal 2 handles all U.S. immigration, customs and agricultural formalities. When U.S. citizens arrive in the United States, they can immediately collect their baggage and depart the airport. For more information on the pre-clearance arrangement, surf here.

Business-Travel News You Need to Know
It's not exactly surprising news, but Continental Airlines says it will adopt Economy Plus seating on its aircraft. United Airlines introduced Economy Plus in 1999 and now that United and Continental have merged, well, it was inevitable. Economy Plus offers as much as five extra inches of legroom in coach. Continental says it will begin retrofitting aircraft next year. Remember last year's grounding of the Qantas fleet of Airbus A380 aircraft after one of the planes made an emergency landing? The uncontained engine failure that caused the emergency ended up keeping the carrier's super-jumbos on the ground for weeks. Total cost to the airline: $80 million. The aircraft involved in the emergency is still being repaired, however, and isn't likely to return to service until the end of the year. The Transportation Department has fined Delta Air Lines $2 million for its treatment of disabled travelers. It's the largest non-safety fine that the agency has ever levied against an airline. Delta was also fined for its mistreatment of disabled travelers in 2003.

The New Travel Hot Spot: Grand Rapids, Michigan
What's the fastest-growing airport in the United States? Surprise! It's Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gerald R. Ford International handled an average of 3,193 passengers daily each way in the third quarter of 2010, a 30 percent increase over the similar period of 2009. The next fastest-growing airports? Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, up 25 percent, and Milwaukee, up 18 percent. According to statistics filed with the U.S. government, the only other U.S. airport with double-digit, year-over-year growth was Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was up 11.7 percent. Of course, Harrisburg only handles about 1,900 passengers a day each way. The fifth fastest-growing airport, Boston Logan, gained more passengers than Harrisburg accommodates. Logan was up 8.5 percent year over year.

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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.